Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cabinet approves prisoner swap deal

Roni Sofer
Israel News

VIDEO - The cabinet approved Sunday the prisoner exchange deal with Hizbullah, which will facilitate the return of IDF captives Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. The motion was carried with a majority of 22 ministers.

Diplomatic officials estimated later in the evening that the swap will likely take place in two week's time, even as early as 10 days from the vote. A date will be set after the German mediator receives the report on missing navigator Ron Arad. The initial stage of the deal will entail an exchange of information, the second phase will include the actual prisoner exchange. The two stages will be separated by mere days but the third part of the deal, the release of the Palestinian prisoners, will take place a full month after the exchange and following an additional cabinet meeting.

Prior to the meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged his ministers to vote in favor of the deal. "At the end of a long process, I have reached the conclusion that as the Israeli prime minister I must recommend that you approve the proposal which will bring this painful affair to an end – even at the painful price it requires us to pay," Olmert said during Sunday's cabinet meeting.

Olmert said during the discussion that as far as Israel knows, the kidnapped soldiers are no longer alive, and are believed to have been killed during the abduction or died of their wounds shortly afterwards.

The prime minister said the kidnapping was likely aimed at bringing about the release of Samir Kuntar, as Hizbullah knew it was unable to meet its commitment in a previous deal to provide information on missing navigator Ron Arad.

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Olmert explained that although the report submitted to Israel regarding the status of missing navigator Ron Arad was more detailed than the previous reports, it offered no clear answer as to the missing navigator’s fate.

“The goal and assumption leading us all this time has been that we are working to return live men. Today we know for certain that this is not the case. The report must be the focus of today’s discussion."

Ehud Goldwasser's father Shlomo told Ynet in response to Olmert's remarks, "We welcome the prime minister's words. It's nice that the prime minister has decided to rectify his error. He has made a brave decision and the right one at that."

The meeting was attended by Mossad Director Meir Dagan and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin. During the meeting, defense sources told the ministers that approving the deal may prompt additional kidnappings, and asked them not vote in favor of it.

At the start of the meeting, Olmert said the deal would affect Israelis' lives in the coming years.

"Even people with the utmost responsibility, like me, have the right and duty to have doubts, as this decision deals with the repercussions on our lives in the coming years."

The prime minister noted, "I admit that I had a lot of doubts due to the problem's multiple aspects, and due to history and the different considerations.

"We have the utmost collective responsibility and mist look the Regev, Goldwasser, Haran (family killed by Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar), (Ron) Arad and (Gilad) Shalit families in the eye – as well as our conscience."

He added that the government is faced with sensitive issues on a weekly basis, but that there was no doubt that the discussion on the captives had particular value, was extraordinarily sensitive and had deep national and moral ramifications.

Olmert said that the negotiations for the kidnapped soldiers' release were held for two years, according to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War. according to the prime minister, during this time Hizbullah attempted to use manipulations and take advantage of the Israeli society's special sensitivities.

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai said before the cabinet meeting that "this is a difficult decision… The question is whether Ron Arad could be brought back today, would we pay the price? We mustn’t wait 22 more years… In any event, this is a difficult decision."

Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said, "I support this deal wholeheartedly. It's our commitment as a government which sends soldiers. They should have been released by now. The media drama is unnecessary and is the result of politics."

Culture, Sports and Minister Raleb Majadele, who supports the deal, said that "we must stop the families' humiliation campaign, and must carry out a mutual and immediate release."

Rallying in favor of deal
The ministers spoke as dozens of people rallied in the government building area in Jerusalem, calling on the ministers to approve the prisoner exchange deal with Hizbullah.

"I hope the ministers will come to their senses and vote in favor of the deal," Miki Goldwasser, Ehud's mother, told Ynet. "We've spoken with the prime minister and we've made our case," she said.

The rally was also attended by several of missing Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad's friends, who called on the cabinet not to forget the MIA airman and to continue in their efforts to find out what became of him.

Should the Regev-Goldwasser deal be pushed through, the government would be greenlighting the release of Samir Kuntar, who has long been considered Israel's strongest bargain chip for any information pertaining to Arad's fate.

Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser have been held captive by Hizbullah for 718 day.

Ronen Medzini contributed to this report

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